Author: Shuger, Debora
Date published: June 1, 2012
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This splendid contribution to the Authorized Version's 400th Birthday gala studies the Anglicization of Hebrew Scripture from Wycliffe to 1611. Focusing on four key words or word-groups--in particular, those the Authorized Version renders as "neighbor," "marriage," "service," and "prince"--Tadmor explores how the Authorized Version and its predecessors, including the Septuagint and Vulgate, rendered the Hebrew: how they merge and divide its semantic fields, deflecting and transposing senses, remolding ancient concepts and categories to produce "an English biblical social universe" (165). In translating the Bible, that is to say, not only Hebrew words, but Hebrew culture and categories underwent a "subtle and overt 'Englishing'" (17); and this Englishing, in turn, allowed the Old Testament to engage and shape "some of the most central processes of its time, including state formation, changing community relations, consolidating marriage and gender roles, and changing labor relations" (20).
A brilliantly erudite study, The Social Universe also makes for an unusually compelling reading experience by, as it were, enacting the complexity of its project, for the book contains two books, or at least two competing theses, that jostle throughout for center stage. And because Tadmor lays out her evidence with impeccable detail and clarity, the reader can follow the debate that her text conducts with itself, and slowly, as the argument unfolds on either hand, begin to grasp the size and weight of the problems involved in translating scripture.
According to the first thesis, the English Bibles failed to render the alien social universe of the Hebrew text but instead reworked it so as to mirror, and hence sanctify, early modern English institutions, practices, and beliefs. And, "like the Greek Narcissus, who, when he saw his own reflection in the water, fell in love with himself, English people from the Tudor and Stuart period . . . fell in love with their 'Englished' Bible" because it reflected their social universe (171). Thus, beginning with Wycliffe, the Hebrew word re'a , which means "friend" and does not imply "nearby habitation," became "neighbor," thus transforming the "Hebrew language of amity" into the manorial and parochial ethics of "neighborly love"--a "misreading of the Hebrew" that the Authorized Version did not correct but instead "canonized" (26-29, 47). So too, biblical Hebrew has no words corresponding to "marriage," "husband," or "wife," and by using these terms, the English Bibles naturalize "an array of polygamous and unequal unions" (60) in order to lend divine sanction to their own culture's "ideology of marriage" (79). Moreover, the English Bibles regularly translate the Hebrew 'eved as "servant." Yet the 'eved was un-free, property of his master, and hence a slave (87). Given that early modern England had no slaves but large numbers of servants, the shift made it possible to "endow a range of occupational and political ties in early modern England with apparently divine sanction" (90), and one can make a similar argument about the English Bibles' rendering various Hebrew terms as "prince" and the naturalization of monarchic rule (129-31). Since the Authorized Version, despite its claim to be "newly translated out of the original tongues," adopts these erroneous Englishings, there are moments when Tadmor finds it less a monumental achievement than a "missed opportunity" (99, 170).
The book's second thesis holds (against its first thesis) that the gaps between the Hebrew and the English were often "inevitable," there being no exact English equivalent for the Hebrew term, and furthermore, often "not inaccurate" (59, 67, 78, 100-1, 117, 135). Thus, while the primary meaning of re'a is friend, in biblical Hebrew the word can also mean "'fellow man' or 'every man,' including a fellow man who is an enemy" (25). In English, however, "friend" cannot mean "fellow man" or "every man"; to have translated the Ninth Commandment as "thou shalt not bear false witness against thy friend" would not only have allowed it against a stranger or enemy but would have falsified the point of the Hebrew. The early modern definition of "neighbor," by contrast, maps almost perfectly on to the semantic field of the biblical re'a : thus according to a 1570 catechism, "'the name of neighbor containeth not only those that be of our kin and alliance, or friends, or such as be knit to us in any civil bond or love, but also those whom we know not, yea, and our enemies'" (40). So too it may well be that "servant," not "slave," best translates the Hebrew 'eved , who was normally to be released at the end of seven years and regarded as a fellow-Jew, not property: Deuteronomy 23:16 forbids returning a runaway 'eved to his master, a rule that manifestly does not apply to straying property (goats, for example, or chickens). As Tadmor's evidence makes clear, the status of the 'eved seems far closer to that of English apprentices than that of slaves, who are (and were) generally viewed as "alien, imported (rather than indigenous), and racially or ethnically different from their masters" (95). Tadmor's evidence likewise suggests that "marriage" may well be the best word English has for the various domestic-sexual unions known to the ancient Hebrews (59, 67, 78), especially since none of them (including that between a free man and a female slave) could be dissolved without formal divorce proceedings and that the children of all such unions had inheritance right (60).
I know of no book that better communicates how hard it is to English the Bible--and how well early modern translators did. If I repeatedly disagreed with one or another of Tadmor's points, there was not a page on which I did not learn something.
University of California, Los Angeles